October 24, 2013, 4:21 PM

A menswear retailer figures out where e-commerce fits best

J.Hilburn.com promotes the brand and easy purchases, leaves tailoring to stylists.

Lead Photo

Veeral Rathod

J.Hilburn Inc. is a hybrid retailer, one with both online and offline components. With no permanent bricks-and-mortar stores, it relies on its web site to attract customers and sell them on the brand, but counts mainly on its 3,100 salespeople—the retailer calls them stylists—around the country to close most sales for its custom-made men’s clothing.

Veeral Rathod, president and co-founder, admits that it took a while for him and co-founder Hil Davis to figure out how to use the web effectively. While they founded the company in 2007 and launched their first rudimentary web site in 2008, it wasn’t until 2011 that the company had an e-commerce site that Rathod considers “presentable.” Even now, it’s still very much a work in progress.

For example, the e-commerce site offers a shirt configurator that lets a guy select the fit he wants, elements like collar and cuff style, and select from a range of fabrics to see what his custom-made shirt would look like. “Guys use it to play around with the brand, but there’s no conversion on it,” Rathod says. Many men find the configurator confusing, he says. “Most guys, when they want to buy new shirts they say, ‘I want exactly the same shirt I’m wearing, or the same shirt in a different pattern.’ They don’t want to rethink the collar or cuff.”

That led J.Hilburn to add a custom shirt reorder feature to its web site this year. A customer can see thumbnails of all the shirts he’s bought from J.Hilburn, select one and reorder it, or order the same shirt in a different color or pattern. The retailer sent out an e-mail recently promoting its fall fabrics to customers who had bought custom shirts and encouraging them to use the reorder tool. During the three days of that e-mail campaign, Rathod says, 8% of sales for J.Hilburn came from its e-commerce site, compared with 0.5% on a typical day.

“That led to some new thinking: We have this two-part connection to the customer,” Rathod says. The stylist is the primary connection with the consumer. She can take measurements, learn what the customer wants “and, most important, tell guys what to wear,” he says. The e-commerce site provides convenience and lets shoppers explore the products on offer. “We realized we should let each channel do what it does best,” Rathod says.

That means encouraging customers to go to the web site to execute simple tasks, like reordering a custom-made shirt in the same or a different pattern, or to buy ready-to-wear clothing. But for major purchases, the retailer encourages the customer to meet with his stylist who can guide him through ordering a new suit for a wedding or graduation “or the coolest, custom-made shirt for his 25th high school reunion.”

J.Hilburn this month took another step to meet its customers offline, opening a temporary store for two weeks in the trendy SoHo section of lower Manhattan. That store allowed customers to see an array of complete outfits on mannequins, and it led to higher sales. The average sale in the store was $850, compared with $325 for the average sale when a stylist meets with a client. J.Hilburn also sponsored a party for New York journalists that generated coverage in about 20 national and local publications, Rathod said. “Going forward, it’s a great way for us to into a market and create brand awareness,” he says. He foresees opening a pop-up store again in New York City next spring and fall, and possibly in some other cities.

J.Hilburn, which has raised $45 million in venture capital, is on track to post sales of $50 million this year, up from $28.5 million last year and $16.5 million in 2011, Rathod says.

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